A vision for the future of theater

Last night, as I previewed last week, theater professionals gathered to talk about race, and how the Twin Cities’ increasing diversity needs to be reflected on stage.

The evening began by talking about how different plays demand different treatment. Most plays are open to “non-traditional” casting (i.e. the characters can be filled by people of different ethnicities without harming – and often enhancing – the storyline). But plays that deal specifically with the issue of race, in which the playwright calls for characters of a certain ethnicity, should be respected.

Panelists and audience members (who packed the CTC basement auditorium) shared their frustrations over common obstacles that often prevent them from doing their best work (scheduling, budgets, small talent pools within certain ethnic minorities, etc).

But in the course of the evening, the panelists agreed on six core ideas that can help guide theater companies through what is often a complicated and even intimidating process.

Intentionality: Faye Price of Pillsbury House Theatre said that when going through the casting process, directors need to be thoughtful about the choices they make. Rather than simply say “I’m going to cast this character with a black man,” it’s important to think through the consequences and implications of each choice. What will change about this character? How will he or she be perceived? How will this effect the story?

Collaboration: Children’s Theatre Company Artistic Director Peter Brosius pointed to the need for collaboration, both with other theater companies and with community partners. Producing an African-American play for the first time? You might want to work with another theater company that has a lot of experience. Share resources and ideas, and both parties will be stronger for it.

Imagination: Michelle Hensley, Artistic Director of Ten Thousand Things Theater Company, said too often we limit ourselves without even realizing it. Casting is 90% of directing, she said, so make sure you’re even more imaginative with your actors than you are with your costuming or staging. If a part calls for a white man try imagining the role with an Asian-American woman, and see where it takes you.

Respect: Actor Randy Reyes stressed that if a theater company is going to take on the story of a particular culture, it needs to treat that culture, and the play, with the utmost respect. Don’t, for example, assume that a Chinese costume will “work” in a Vietnamese play. Take the time to educate yourself, and pay attention to detail.

Communication: Mu Performing Arts Artistic Director Rick Shiomi said that while Twin Cities theaters are for the most part collegial, they do not have great communication skills. That’s how, he said, five theater companies managed to schedule simultaneous plays featuring Asian-American characters, essentially sapping the entire talent pool of Asian-American actors. Talking early and often would help alleviate such problems.

Lastly, added to all of this is a need for Consistency. Theaters need to make consistent efforts both to develop a diverse array of actors to work with and to build a diverse audience for their plays. Don’t do one culturally specific play and then go back to all caucasian-cast shows for the next two years. The theater will immediately undo any trust it was trying to establish.

Theater professionals in the audience also shared their ideas and experiences. One actor talked of the desire to speak up about issues of race with his director, but fearing that would hurt his chances of being cast again, and wondering how best to approach the conversation. Another said it’s hard to underestimate to what extent actors of color feel “the doors are closed to them” at most theaters. Another said that if you’re going to ask for help with the cultural specificity of your play, be willing to pay for it, as a show of respect.

Josh Cragun, director of Nimbus Theatre, spoke to the fast changing world we live in, and how his theater seeks to represent a new reality in which non-traditional relationships and diverse communities are the norm.

Several people expressed hope for the future with the creation of the new Twin CitiesMinnesota Theater Alliance, which is meant to improve communication and collaboration amongst theaters.

Moving forward, the panelists expressed a need to broaden the conversation to include more theaters and a larger audience. And they also recognized that while this evening’s panel discussion concerned race, equally important discussions need to be had around sexuality and gender in theater.

April 7, 8:00am – Interested in hearing the discussion? Josh Humphrey of Twin Cities Theater Connection recorded it and has posted the audio here.

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